Leta Powell Drake has been a celebrity to the residents of Lincoln, Nebraska, for more than 40 years, thanks to her decades of work as a beloved local TV personality. But late Wednesday night, Drake became Twitter famous when a supercut of some of her greatest moments as a celebrity interviewer (assembled by John Frankensteiner) went viral, racking up more than 4 million views. Unlike the softball questions lobbed to stars by TV hosts today, Drake has a super-friendly, sometimes wacky, and yet decidedly no-b.s. interview style that resulted in absolutely awesome responses from the stars of the day. A reaction from Washington Post writer Shane Harris — “I must find her and make her my guru” — pretty much sums up social media’s opinion on the legend of Leta Powell Drake.
And thankfully, Ms. Drake is a living legend. She is alive and well and still living in Nebraska, and she was more than happy to hop on the phone for an extended conversation with Vulture about her now-famous interview style, her favorite celebrity encounter, and what it was like being a female journalist in a very male-dominated world. (And P.S.: While the viral Twitter clip features Drake grilling everyone from Tom Hanks and Telly Savalas to Tom Selleck and a [then still relevant] Scott Baio, there’s even more gold to be found on a YouTube playlist collecting dozens of Drake’s interviews.)
Would it surprise you to hear that a video of your greatest interviews has gotten over 3.2 million views on Twitter?
[Laughs.] Oh, and the pay is good, too! I get 3.2 dollars. How do I find it?
I’ll send it to you. Let me know when you get it.
Okay. [A minute later] Oh, we were all so young and pretty! Oh, so they’re just little segments?
Oh, there’s Tom Hanks! I’m still wearing those clothes. Those clothes are still in my closet. I can still fit into them! I just wore that one the other day. Well, isn’t that interesting.
Do you know how your interviews got on to YouTube?
I gave them all to the Nebraska Historical Society. Cause I thought, What am I going to do with these things? Some of them are really interesting and so, well, I might as well give them to them. I have copies, but they are more organized than I am.
How many are there? How many do you think he did over the years?
Oh, God, I don’t know. I did it for so many years. I don’t know, 100? 200? At least that. Maybe 300. You know, these were the old days. I worked for the CBS television station here in Lincoln, Nebraska. And the way it worked was [studios and networks] invited people to come in and really promote that particular [project]. So all of the stars were there, and we’d go in for a couple of days and just do all the interviews one right after the other. I prepared myself.
The questions you asked weren’t the kinds you hear now from reporters on media junkets!
We didn’t have access like we do now on the internet, you know, to find out information. So I had to read books and try to find newspaper clippings and all that stuff. So I came prepared. I did hundreds of hundreds of them over the course of time.
The stars didn’t come to Nebraska, though, right?
Oh, no. [Laughs.] Nobody came to Lincoln. We were just as a small community. We went to New York. All over, we went. And that’s how I got the interviews — they would give us a copy of it.
Based on the interviews I’ve seen so far, most of the stars seemed more than happy to see you, even if your questions weren’t at all softballs. Most junket questions are along the lines of “Tell me about your favorite scene” or something silly like that.
Exactly. That’s exactly it. The person who was the star heard that over and over and over again. And I knew that. So I did my homework before I went. And so therefore I didn’t ask them any of the kinds of questions that everybody else did, and maybe that’s why they were so receptive and responsive, because at least it was very refreshing.
So is it fair to say you didn’t care about being seen as rude or overly frank when talking to celebrities? I’m wondering if anybody ever had a negative reaction?
Almost everybody was very receptive. They really were. And I think it was refreshing for them to not get the same questions, which, you know, if people hadn’t come prepared, they’d say, well, “Tell us about your program,” or whatever you’re doing. So they’d put all the emphasis on the person to tell the story. Whereas I did my homework before and then tried to make it interesting … I really had fun with these people. I really did. Some got very tired, you know, toward the end of the day. But I think they perked up when I came up, because I didn’t ask the usual questions. The young people who had no experience, they would say, “Tell us about your life.” That was not a good question.
Is there one interview in particular that comes to mind as a highlight for you?
I think one that stands out in my mind was George Burns. Because he was 99 years of age, and he was planning — he had already accepted an invite to play in Las Vegas for his 100th birthday. So we talked about that, and I mean, he was so charming. He sat there with his cigar, you know, and I said, “You’re not supposed to do that!” And he said, “That’s why I lived so long, because I smoke these cigars!” That was so charming. And then he died shortly thereafter, so I might’ve done the last interview he ever did.
In some of the interviews in the supercut, a few of the male actors got a little flirty with you.
Oh, a couple of guys, you know, would call me later and would want me to go to dinner. But I was “busy.”
Oh, no, I won’t do that.
Did any of them ever get out of line?
I mean, I always got a big kick out of everybody. And I would laugh anything off. If they made a suggestion or something, I just laughed it off. I was serious about it, but I pretended not to be.
So did you have any formal journalism training? You did theater in college, right?
When I graduated from high school, I decided I was going to be a lawyer. So I had fairly high grades in high school. And so they put me in a class that was way out of my reach. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was going to be an attorney … So I auditioned [for the school play] and I got the lead role. And so I left my other plans behind, and I just stayed in the theater. I did all the shows in the community playhouse and the university theater. And, you know, it just kind of evolved.
Theater was my bit, and it still is. I’m still doing theater. In fact, now at this age, I created, here in Lincoln, Nebraska, a program for seniors, age 50 and older, to be in plays. And we were going into our eighth production, but of course the coronavirus shut everything down. We were just getting ready to do The Pirates of Penzance and then the virus hit. So that’s been very sad. But I’ve also been involved with OLLI — the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Does that mean anything to you?
Mr. Osher was a gazillionaire and lived in California. And he wanted seniors to continue to learn. So he gave colleges and universities all across the United State millions and millions of dollars to set up classes. I got involved right from the beginning. So I take care of all arts classes here at the Johnny Carson school at University of Nebraska. You know about Johnny Carson, right?
Yes, indeed. He’s from Nebraska.
All right. Okay. Here’s the thing about Johnny. Johnny graduated from the University of Nebraska in what was called the Temple Building. It is an old building, built in like 1894. He graduated from there. I was probably ten years younger than he was, so I came after him. He’d already gone and he became a star over the course of time. Well, I would go to New York for the fashion shows, and I would do interviews with the people. And Johnny was on the schedule. He didn’t know me. Everybody who attends these things — this is fashion. All the women writers from around the United States, all the male writers — everybody was there, and they are dressed to the nines. I came in wearing one of my outfits. It’s a striped pantsuit. It was ludicrous. It was just bright red, bright white. Johnny looked at some of his people, and he says, “Who is that person back there way in the back?” And they just told him, “Oh, that’s Leta of Lincoln?” And he just shouted, “Where’s that Leta, that Leta of Lincoln?” I’ve been called Leta of Lincoln ever since.
Amazing. What did he say when you talked?
He said, “What the heck kind of an outfit was that?” I said, “Johnny, when you were in Lincoln, you used to dress like that.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s why I left.” Oh, and one more thing. [The] Carson [estate] just gave recently $44 million to the University of Nebraska to update the Temple Building. I mean, Johnny is so in my heart. He did that. He did that for us. And that allows students to go to Europe, and learn about theater there, and the building has been reconstructed. It’s just beautiful. And so now that’s why we call it the Johnny Carson School of Theater and Film.
So you worked for the CBS affiliate in Lincoln, right? Were you their regular entertainment correspondent for their newscast?
Oh, no, I had two shows a day. I had the morning show — Oh God, that was fun [laughs], at seven in the morning. I produced it and I hosted it and had to figure out interesting people to come on. I did that for, I don’t know, about 20 years at the CBS affiliate. And at the same time, in the afternoon, I did the kids’ show Kalamity Kate, the West’s only lady sheriff. So I had my outfit on there, my Western outfit, and all the little darlings, and everything was live. Some of the kids were terrified with all the lights, the big camera, and the big cameraman. And some peed their pants. [Laughs.] And I’d think, God, I hope I don’t have to clean that up.
That’s amazing. So you didn’t just hang out with celebrities all the time.
No, that’s the thing that people remember around here. It was the Cartoon Corral With Kalamity Kate. These kids — I mean, they’re adults now — they run into me and they say, “Oh, Kalamity! I was on your show!” It happens almost every day, which is really fun.
You had to have loved your job.
Loved it! But it was a hell of a lot of work. You know much I got paid? For the morning show, I got $15 a day. Now, I hosted it and produced it. And the kids’ show, I got $10 a day. So I made $25 a day. And of course, guys all ran the station. The management was all guys, the control room was all guys. And us little women were out there doing our thing.
For $25 a day. How much did the guys make?
Oh, God. Beyond belief. I really did enjoy my boss. I loved him. He was very open and receptive. But he was a gazillionaire. He lived ten doors down from me, but I would go over to his place — it was the Taj Mahal. That’s how they lived. But all those guys are dead now. I am not going gently into that good night.
Does that make you mad now?
No. That’s just the way it was then. What am I going to do about that? Now I have retirement.
You probably did a lot of fun things on the morning show other than celebrity interviews.
I flew across the United States four times. I did the all women’s transcontinental air race. That was the advantage of being on television. The station, they said, “Do you want to learn to fly?” And then the photographers would come out and film it as I learned how to fly. I got to fly for free all those years. They had a woman pilot to teach me.
When did you really start doing the celebrity interview junket?
Oh, God, let me think. It would have been the late ’70s or early ’80s. I did them at least until the end of the ’80s.
When you did all this, what was your home life like? Were you married with kids?
I married, and I married the wrong guy. But I had a child that I adore.
How long were you married?
Maybe three or four years. I got pregnant. And then my husband got even more absurd, and he was an alcoholic. So about two years later, I said, “That’s it. Good-bye.” I got rid of him, and I never ever married again. A lot of guys in between, but I never married again.
What’s your day like these days?
Well, I’m still creating classes for the Johnny Carson School of Theater and Film and the Metropolitan Opera. If there’s something that I’m interested in, I just create the class, and I’ll get the professional person to teach it. We did it in-person for 15 years, and that was really fun. And now, of course, everything is done on Zoom, and I just hate it. I just hate it.
Do you still do interviews for TV?
Well, I have another television show. Oh, yeah. I forgot that. [Laughs.] This is for old people. It is called Live and Learn, and it’s on the three channels in Lincoln. It’s just things that are going on for older people, and I do interviews about that.
Would you ever have any interest in interviewing celebrities again? Do you keep up with a lot of TV and film now?
I’m a reader. I love the libraries … I can download the books onto my Kindle and read them. I do watch public television, because after I left the CBS affiliate, I went to public television and programmed that station. But I don’t watch a lot of television. I might tune into CNN, but I can’t stand the commercials. There are about eight or nine commercials in between segments, and I can’t take it. I hate to see what’s happened to television. It’s just crap! [Laughter.]
I don’t think you tweet much anymore, but from the few tweets I was able to see of yours from a few years ago, it seems like you’re more of a Democrat.
Of course I’m a Democrat. Anybody who’s reasonable is a Democrat.